Elizebeth Smith Friedman was a pioneering cryptanalyst who helped overthrow gangsters during Prohibition and break a Nazi spy ring in South America during World War II.
The 2016 film Hidden Figures brought the forgotten black women who worked at NASA during the Apollo program into the national spotlight. Now PBS is doing the same for Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a Quaker poet who pioneered cryptography with her husband William Friedman in a new documentary for the American Experience series. The Codebreaker is based on the 2017 book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Tale of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies, by Jason Fagone, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. According to the official premise:
The Codebreaker reveals the fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the pioneering cryptanalyst whose painstaking work deciphering thousands of messages for the U.S. government, sent notorious gangsters to jail in the 1920s, and a massive, almost invisible Nazi leader in World War II. Spy ring would topple. Her notable contributions would come to light decades after her death when secret government files were unsealed. Together with her husband, legendary cryptologist William Friedman, Elizebeth helped develop the methods that led to the creation of the powerful new science of cryptology, and today they laid the foundation for modern code breaking.
Director Chana Gazit told Ars that she was drawn to the story for a number of reasons, including the fact that it took so long for Elizebeth Smith Friedman's key contributions to come to light. "If we have missed Elizebeth, who contributed so much to the security of this country in the first half of the 20th century, who else are we missing?" She said. "It just felt good to be able to portray a brilliant woman with ambition who wanted a bigger life, who could overcome so many obstacles, but also had a well-rounded life that encompassed both personal and professional life."
To learn more about this extraordinary woman, Ars sat down with Fagone, on whose book the documentary is based.
Ars Technica: How did you discover Elizebeth Smith Friedman?
Jason Fagone: I had never heard of her before. My curiosity was piqued around 2014 after Edward Snowden's revelations. I started reading the history of the National Security Agency (NSA) and all roads led to William Friedman. He is said to be the greatest American code breaker of all time, someone who solved secret messages without knowing the key. He is considered the godfather of the NSA. If you go to NSA headquarters there is a bronze bust of his head outside of the auditorium. I saw that Friedman had a wife named Elizebeth who was also a code breaker. There wasn't much other information about her, but how many male and female code breaking teams can there possibly be?
So I looked for more information about her and that led me to the George Marshall Foundation Library in Lexington, Virginia. I started reading Elizebeth's papers. She left 22 boxes with her diaries, letters and code word sheets. This extraordinary story jumped from my side: This story of a woman who was a Quaker-breaking Quaker poet who caught gangsters and hunted Nazi spies and helped win the world wars only to be banned from the history books by men and to get their contributions covered. I just wanted to know everything about her and tell her story in full.
Ars Technica: Much of this wasn't released until around 2008, which could be one reason it wasn't noticed.
Jason Fagone: There are two main reasons why we haven't heard her story until now. One is sexism. Elizebeth was a technical master at a time when women were not considered technically competent in many areas. She has been struck or deleted from the records by the men in her life because of some success. Sometimes these were men who were close to her, like her husband William, who was appalled when he received recognition for things that Elizebeth actually did. But sometimes the men who paid tribute to her work actively tried to steal her, especially J. Edgar Hoover.
Throughout WWII, Elizebeth did a job the FBI had to do but had no technical skills: monitor radio stations used by Nazi spies in South America, intercept messages, break codes, solve puzzles, and find out what those spies were doing. The FBI had no code breaking capacity. It essentially bankrupted this whole gang of Nazi spies, shattered their network, and removed the threat. After the war, Hoover came out publicly saying, "The FBI smashed those Nazi spy rings in South America, you're welcome America." Elizebeth and the U.S. Coast Guard had actually done the job, but it was a lie that has been repeated and written in history books. One of the exciting things for me about writing the book and watching this documentary is that people are now getting the real story.
Enlarge /. William Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman as a young couple.
YouTube / PBS
Ars Technica: William and Elizebeth appear to have had an equal marriage; Their relationship reminds me a little of Marie and Pierre Curie.
Jason Fagone: Yes, the founding of the NSA is rooted in this love story. Elizebeth and William had a special relationship. They started writing to each other before they were romantically involved. But even then you can see the spark and that they click on the page. It was these two young people who wanted to achieve great things and leave their mark. After falling in love, they signed their love notes with little messages written in code. These are two people who changed the 20th century, and part of the reason they were able to do so is because they had this remarkable relationship. Their thoughts were so intertwined that even in code they were talking to each other when they wrote love letters.
Ars Technica: What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing about Elizebeth and her work?
Jason Fagone: I was a little worried not being a mathematician or a scientist that I might not understand what she was doing on a technical level, but Elizebeth herself actually helped me overcome that fear. While looking through her papers, I found an unpublished manuscript that she wrote for a young adult audience. It was about how to break codes like she did back then, so with pencil and paper. It was essentially a Codebreaking for Dummies book to introduce people to the fundamentals of code breaking as it existed in Elizebeth's day.
So I went through the book like a student and did some of the exercises. I felt like I was learning from Elizebeth, some of the basics of her science and her world. I didn't want to just wave it away by hand. I really wanted to convey what it was about Elizebeth that allowed her to break these codes and solve these messages that so many people couldn't.
Enlarge /. The code breaker at work.
YouTube / PBS
Ars Technica: What do you think she did so well at code breaking?
Jason Fagone: I think she was a genius at seeing patterns that look like noise to other people. She did it over and over again over the decades in so many different contexts. She did not have a trained math or science background. I had always imagined a code breaker was someone who was a mathematician, but Elizebeth was a poet. She spent her time in college studying Shakespeare and the poems of Tennyson. I think that gave her a feel for the rhythm of the language, the way words move across the page. I think she had a natural pattern matching ability too.
Because it gave her code breaking from this unusual angle, it gave her a leg up. It made her the indispensable woman to the US government for most of her career. This was in the early stages of cryptology in America. Elizebeth started breaking codes when American code breaking didn't even exist. It was such a young field that it had no systems in place to keep women out. This allowed her to gain respect and prestige for her accomplishments in this technical field, even though she was a woman because there were so few people who did code breaking at a high level. The NSA didn't exist, the CIA didn't exist, and the FBI was very young and had no code breaking capacity. It was a criminal investigation agency. A smart young woman with a different point of view could really make a mark. And she absolutely did.
The Codebreaker will debut tonight, January 11, 2021, on PBS & # 39; American Experience at 9:00 p.m. EST / 8:00 p.m. CST.
Listing picture from YouTube / PBS